Finding Story In Premise

Your premise dictates the ideal shape of your story.

What is "premise"? Everybody defines it differently, and it's pretty confusing. So let's cut through the fog:

The premise is the smallest packet of information that suggests a story. The premise is the "story idea" from which a story can be built.

The premise has to at least be two nouns. Pixar seems to go into each new project with just a single noun. To complete the sentence "Let's do a movie about..." they supply a noun: "toys", "superheroes", "the sea".

These are not story ideas. There is no story idea there. There's no premise.

To generate a premise, something in the noun's world must be doing something. "A new toy challenges the established order." "A superhero family fights evil." "A fish searches for his missing offspring."

Once you have a person place or thing in a world doing something, you have a story idea. There's your premise. It's basically a sentence. Subject and predicate. Subject-verb-object. Actor acts upon object.

How do you get a screenplay out of this? It's easy. Idea = Ideal. The premise dictates the ideal shape of the story. How?

By abstracting the components of the premise.

For any given premise, there is a certain ideal shape to the story that results. The ideal may be endlessly elaborated, given the many configurations of characters, time periods and story worlds in which a given plot may rest -- but it will be essentially the same ideal for any given premise.

This is why we find certain story archetypes repeated again and again. They are variations on an ideal implicit within the premise. Endless variations can be spun but the ideal always arises directly from the premise.

The movie's greatness, integration, balance -- arguably, all of these rely on adherence to this ideal.

Let's see how this works. Here's a premise:

"Alien robots, who can transform into cars, solicit the help of a young boy to defeat evil."

To move forward and start building a story, simply abstract the components and create characters who symbolize and embody these components. You want to create symbolic parallels between your characters, through which they will act out the idea implicit in the premise.

This process gives you a symbolic web, a foundation on which to build all of your ensuing action. You start off with this integration and stick to it -- and your story can't help but be integrated and tightly-knit from the very beginning.

That's what the story ideal is -- the most organic and integrated development of the potential implicit within the premise.

Create parallels -- the young boy would be a car freak.  That's how he'd meet the autobots. And he would be like a robot, in general -- cold, mechanical, unfeeling. And like these robots, specifically -- able to transform into anything.

So, he would be a hard-driving con-man, out to achieve his goals by any means possible.

When you abstract and synchronize your characters, you create points of correspondence. You then create a reason for these characters to exist...for them to be in this story and no other. Synchronize all your characters symbolically -- make sure they relate to the premise in some form.

The antagonist would be someone antithetical to robots. Something completely biological, something not mechanical in any way. Some alien amoeba, some vast beast.

Our human being would be a bridge between these two extremes. He would be the key, not only for the robots to prevail over the beast, but for the beast to defeat the robots. Both sides would fight to obtain him and utilize him in their cause.

We see a little bit of this in the plot of Transformers. Both sides needed Sam. But, they needed him to provide the location of something else they both needed -- information which he only had because of a torturous plot device.

So he's fairly extraneous to their struggle. There's nothing in his nature which renders him the right man for the job, symbolically. There's no reason for him to be there. He's just a kid, a nerd who wants to be cool, and hanging with the robots gets him, somehow, to be cool and hook up with the hot girl. And, inexplicably, he's got the drive and the skills to help the robots with the stuff they need to do.

None of this has any resonance to, nor correspondence with, the premise of the movie -- and the movie, as it inevitably will, suffers because of it. We can talk for hours about how good or bad Transformers was (and there'll be less argument about Transformers II). But in a perfect world, had the writers been free to build the movie organically from the premise -- we would've seen something way more integrated as a result, and probably a lot more awesome.

Bear in mind this represents an ideal. For so many reasons, a movie will fall short of this ideal. It's not a perfect world, after all. But the more perfectly a screen story is realized, the closer it gets to this ideal, the better it gets -- the more inevitable it feels, like something which the gods have willed.

Writers work like dogs to get to this place. Let your premise do some of the heavy lifting for you. Let it design your story before you even start writing.

Let the story ideal work for you.

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